Pioneers, Lenin and the gingerbread men: letter from Orenburg

Over the last 20 years the teaching of history has changed dramatically in Russia. Today’s children seem not to know or care very much about their country’s past. Elena Strelnikova wonders how well they are being taught in school.

Elena Strelnikova
17 March 2011

The traditional exchange at the doctor’s: “Surname?” “St-elnikov” – my husband tries very hard to pronounced the letter “r”, but he hasn’t been able to do this for his whole life, almost 45 years. All these years he has added “I’m like Grandfather Lenin!” [who couldn’t pronounce his “rs” either]. But the last time he said this, he added “Today’s generation probably doesn’t know who that is.” “Perhaps they don’t need to,” retorted the elderly nurse. 

Perhaps…perhaps… but 30 years ago we were making summaries ofLenin’s “April Theses” and learning the poem about the little boy with curly hair by heart. We listened to enthusiastic tales of the revolution, of the (unavoidable) liberation from the yoke of tsarism; collectivisation was mentioned in passing, but we were always bemused by the fact that all the Soviet successes were compared with figures for 1913. There was no mention of the famine and KGB repressions were talked about in whispers. 



Children still seem to know who Lenin was, but are unsure about Stalin and Gorbachev

Interestingly enough, not long ago I had a visit from the FSB. The man talked about my writing and suggested that I should work with them, wouldn’t I like to discuss themes for my articles with them? I wouldn't. But it was, I can honestly say, quite scary and sent chills down my spine. What if this young man had also studied Lenin's article about the dictatorship of the proletariat (one could only hope he had not done this off his own bat)?  Perhaps even Stalin's “Dizzy with success”. History must be studied and the correct conclusions reached.

At some point when I was about 15, I heard from one of the teachers that if one were to count up the minutes parents and children spent together (communicating, rather than just sitting together on the sofa), then it would hardly be more than half an hour. I didn't believe the experienced specialists and spent the whole week carefully counting the time I talked to my elders at home. It was about 20 minutes, no more. 

My Moscow friend leaves home every day at 7.30, when her daughter is still asleep. She gets back at 10pm;  her daughter is already asleep. Their only communication is by phone.

Elena Strelnikova

Parents today, even in the provinces, have much less time for their children. Few people finish work at 6pm, so it's more like 8pm by the time modern parents get home to their children.  And that, it has to be said, is not too bad. My Moscow friend leaves home every day at 7.30, when her daughter is still asleep. She gets back at 10pm;  her daughter is already asleep. Their only communication is by phone. 

Our children are always losing their phones and seem to have no feelings of guilt about doing so. Their parents are still earning, after all. After the latest incident my husband announced that he refused to buy another handset — the children should find their own ways of letting us know where they are and what they're doing (our parents didn't ask us to keep them informed…). Meanwhile I borrowed an old phone from a colleague at work with the promise to return it “immediately, as soon as…” (her son is growing up too).  So, my husband and I looked at the situation carefully and decided that we would communicate with our children as much as possible. Active time off was divided up between us: he would take the children ski-ing and I would take them skating. In the evening we'd watch film strips (we still have the equipment from our Soviet childhood).  Our middle daughter had long been unable to understand why he was keeping all this rubbish, but now every evening we hear “But Daddy, you promised!” When our youngest child sat in the darkness and saw the black pictures on the white screen, she clapped enthusiastically and exclaimed breathlessly “Gweat!”  How about that?!  She too is “like Grandfather Lenin”!

Komsomol ticket

Many parents and grandparents have kept hold of their Komsomol ticket. The past was not simple, but at least they were young and full of hope.

The children's favourite request (almost, and apart, of course, from sweets), is to be told interesting stories about when we were young. The most recent request came at the time I was writing this article, so I got out my school photograph album, my badges and my tie.  My husband added in his cards – membership of the Komsomol, the trade union (this last one rather shocked me). Who's that? Where are you? What's that? What for? Who did you have pay dues to? The questions came rattling out in such abundance that it was difficult to keep up with them. 

The children do have some ideas about who Lenin was. This was also the case with the young people and students I interviewed for this article: “He's some kind of famous person, they didn't put a monument up to him for nothing!” (a 9-year old), a “people's leader” (3rd year university student), “Lenin was a revolutionary leader” (16-year old), “I know him, he toppled the Tsar” (14-year old), “A proletarian leader, proletarians of the world – unite!” (4th year university student). And the wonderful answer from a 8-year-old who was watching a documentary with great attention “Lenin was a revolutionary, who was killed by Kapral [Rn corporal]”. It's not so terrible that the child confused Fanny Kaplanwith a corporal. I myself always muddle up the Pauls, Alexanders and Nicholases who ruled Russia.

The children's favourite request (almost, and apart, of course, from sweets), is to be told interesting stories about when we were young.

Elena Strelnikova

Somehow or other, everyone knows about Lenin. Less so Stalin (”dictatorship – that's him”). But when it gets to the Krushchev thaw (”I know, I know there are the khrushchevki [the 5-story apartment blocks built in huge numbers during the 60s], but when was…?”) or the Brezhnev time of stagnation (”I remember the teacher telling us about the day he died. The girls had black ribbons in their hair and black aprons on;  everyone was crying”, “everything had to be written for him, he didn't say a word himself”), but what about Gorbachev's perestroika? The younger generation doesn't even seem to know much about that (”Nikita? Sergeevich? Mikhail?” “He wasn't president”).  Is it how they're taught or are they simply not interested in the history of their nation? I don’t know, but they’re certainly very happy to look at family heirlooms!

Interestingly, everyone I talked to knew that their parents had been Young Pioneers.  “This was what children were called in Soviet times”, “they did good things” (of course, we didn't tell them we had skipped lessons and faked marks in our school report books).  I was also told that the Pioneers “collected up scrap metal” (once the children in my class hijacked an asphalt roller-skating rink on wheels which had been left unsupervised for a couple of hours) “and waste paper” (all the local grannies knew who to offload bundles of newspapers on to), “they marched in ranks and shouted out slogans”. My mother actually tried to dissuade me from joining the Komsomol. She said that it was all for show and would soon come to an end. I didn't believe her and went to another talking session. I got into the Komsomol only at my fourth attempt, because I simply couldn't remember the Komsomol building projects when asked. My knowledge didn't extend beyond the Baikal-Amur mainline and I don't think anyone else's did either, except for the unpleasant young man on the admissions committee. That young man, incidentally, progressed from being a class prefect to a functionary in a regional ministry, where there are masses of people from the Komsomol who have moved smoothly over to being United Russia party members.

“I was most interested in my mother's uniform,” recalled one of my students, “it was so nice and so unusual”. She and I had a long conversation about the history of Russia, discussing who had supported what and who had done what. I was very charmed by her last phrase “Goodness! How interesting. At one point we were set an essay in school on the subject of 'My family'. I talked to my parents, grandmother and grandfather. They don't know much about the history of our family – perhaps I should have another talk with them”. 

Somehow or other, everyone knows about Lenin. Less so Stalin (”dictatorship – that's him”).

Elena Strelnikova

My friend has a daughter, but she didn't engage in that kind of conversation with her.  She put all her ancestors, starting with her great-grandfather, up in elegant frames; beside them she hung napkins which had been sewn by her mother and grandmother. Nearby she stood a birchbark box that she had found in the attic of her parent's house. The child started asking questions herself. She grew up caring and kind. She doesn't care for politics and lives in a world of Japanimation: there are parties, carnival costumes and a great interest in Japanese cooking. Everything she will NOT get from today's schools and universities.

The volunteer movement is being reintroduced into schools (we just had the simple Russian version – volunteers). First you have to go through a selection process, then you are sent to help sick children and adults. It's even said (and officially described on sites and in reports, but no one has actually seen it) that there is a Pioneer organisation. The United Russia “Young Guard” has been kicked into action before the elections. Spies were sent to the shops recently: underage children tried to buy beer and cigarettes, which by law they are not allowed to do. Shops where the assistants were negligent had stickers of shame on their doors. Very effective!

BAM Urgal

A locomotive depo in Urgal, a city on the eastern part of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM). In order to join Komsomol, children had to answer questions about the organization's major building projects. In Brezhnev times, BAM was its flagship.

“Mama!  The fox is not guilty!!!” My daughter came rushing in from school and started blurting out the latest news to me. In class one of the boys had been defending the vixen from the famous Russian tale about the Roly-poly [gingerbread man]. “My client the vixen is not guilty,” began the young defender of human rights “because by singing in the forest the gingerbread man provoked the animals to unseemly actions. Only my client was capable of assessing the level of his singing. But she was no longer young and slightly deaf, so she asked the gingerbread man to sit a bit nearer. He was too fat and slid into the vixen's mouth. So it was an accident. But even if one assumes that my client did this on purpose, she is still not guilty because the gingerbread man is a bakery product and the vixen used it for its intended purpose”. 

We were always so sorry for the gingerbread man. Incidentally, Lenin studied at the faculty of law.


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